Independent filmmaker Anand Ravichandran’s mobile hasn’t stopped ringing since a week. For someone who’s travelled with a film made on a shoestring budget and has awaited its release for almost two years, the response has been staggering. The feeling is almost similar to a baby finally earning its wings to fly. His Sethum Aayiram Pon, the Netflix original, is an extremely relevant film that throws light on several interesting traditions that surround death in the interiors of Tamil Nadu. The 100-minute film is about death but is never melancholic or sentimental about it. It urges the audiences to celebrate life than fearing about their death. Simple, funny and poignant, there’s a chirpiness in the setting that charms you gradually. The filmmaker tells more about it in an interview with LetsOTT.com
Was it a challenge to talk about death in Sethum Aayiram Pon minus melodrama and give it a humorous touch at the same time?
Balancing a theme surrounding death with elements of humour wasn’t easy because it was an emotional topic, to begin with. Our intention was also to discuss the inevitability of death – no one can escape it. Once you start to celebrate death and not fear it, you tend to live happily. When you know you don’t have a choice but to die someday, you start celebrating every moment. That’s the reason there’s a liveliness in the atmosphere of the film. The oppari (lamenting through singing at the time of death) aspect in the film has a versatility to it – it can be funny, sarcastic and emotional at the same time. The lightness in the treatment was necessary to explore the various layers of oppari.
You’ve explored the politics surrounding death/dead people vividly through the film. What went into their filming?
I have seen a lot of such situations personally and heard many people talk about it. I have been a witness to oppari right from childhood – the politics surrounding a dead person has always existed but is not something that has been discussed a lot in mainstream films. Many films may have touched upon oppari in their stories, but it hasn’t been their sole focus as a subject. Different castes have different ways of cremating a person and cultures change within a few 100 kms. Every part of India has a different way of celebrating death. I have captured a tradition that I have seen and heard of.
Sethum Aayiram Pon makes use of a personalised story (granddaughter-grandma relationship) to take the audiences through lives in a village that revolve around two traditions on the wane. What triggered you to make it?
As strange as it might sound, the most number of days I have been in a village has been for this film’s shoot. The oppari and the makeup traditions during death inspired me to write the story. The more I studied about it and its evolution, the more fascinating it became. Interestingly, oppari is a culture predominant in most rice-eating nations. South Indian traditions share an uncanny similarity with Mexican culture – they live like a big family, the marriage rituals last about four days, some people dance during the death ceremony. We are connected by birth and death across cultures. These traditions have unfortunately waned with time – there are very few takers for the makeup tradition during deaths over the years.
The atmospherics of the setup and the detailing that went into the film truly reflected your urge to tell the story…
For a person who has never been to a village, these stories are exciting. The protagonist in the film is a reflection of my personality – there were no mobile signals, the weather was very hot and the recce was extremely tiring and it wasn’t easy, to begin with. The more I stayed in the village and later returned to Chennai, I felt something was missing in my life. People talked and walked at a leisurely pace in the village, there were no honking sounds. Though there were hardly 300 people, everybody came to the set, gave us food and we became a family. This is an experience that can only happen in a village. They may lead a life without Facebook, Whatsapp but are still so well-knit as a community. Chennai despite the density makes me feel isolated.
While you say that the role of the granddaughter is an extension of your personality, what made you think of the character as a granddaughter and not a grandson?
The relationship between any two women is always intriguing. Even if two men fight in an all-boys gang, the resolution happens in no time. When two women fight, the incident stays with them forever – they will pull those memories back even after years, unlike men who move on quite easily in life. Most men think with their left brain, at least going by what the research says. Women, however, are emotional beings and think with their right brain. If a conflict between two women is resolved, the entire community can be free of conflicts too. It was interesting to bring two similar hot-headed women of different backgrounds and portray how they mend their relationship.
Was the Kannada film Thithi an inspiration by any chance - it was another remarkable film revolving around death…
I really loved Thithi, it is right among the best films I’ve watched in my life. It’s so slice-of-life in its setting and served more as a visual reference for Sethum Aayiram Pon. Thithi wasn’t the starting point of my story, but it helped us decide on the kind of actors we had to choose, the way we had to approach the story and the tone we wanted to maintain.
All said and done, this is a dense subject to handle for a first-time filmmaker. The unanimous positive responses must have been humbling…
The response has been overwhelmingly positive after the release on Netflix – calling me and reaching out to me from various parts of the globe. As a story, there was an instantaneous connect with it across various audiences because most of us have our roots in villages in some form and many were able to take something from the movie. From the nostalgia of the times they had spent with their grandparents or the stories they had heard about ancestors, everyone had a takeaway element. Executing it was a challenge. As a team prior to the filming, we knew we had a good film in our hands if we could pull it off well. We have been very positive about it since the inception of the project.
The film subtly takes a dig at the way the industry treats its makeup artistes…
That’s the parallel that we wanted to bring in. Kuberan, for instance, is a character who does make up for the dead and is hugely respected in the village while the professional who’s applying makeup for film actors is looked down upon – at best, the industry only respects someone who does prosthetics. The people doing the makeup are merely referred to as touch up artistes in cinema language – it’s not an easy profession, but the treatment meted out to them is unfortunate. The contrast between the treatment of makeup artistes by the so-called learned section in the society and the village locals was huge. It’s ironical.
Most of the songs in the film are sung by the actors themselves or the supporting cast. Was it a challenge to retain the authenticity of the oppari tradition?
The oppari singers seen in the film are those who actually do it for a living. We went to Madurai and did a lot of auditions. I ideally would have wanted to cast an oppari singer as the grandmother too. Unfortunately, they couldn’t act. They were excellent in their profession but they didn’t know to act, for obvious reasons. We had to look out for an actor who can sing or learn oppari in a short period. That’s how we ended up casting Srilekha Chandran who’s also a veteran dubbing artiste. She adapts to different dialects easily and was willing to learn. Singing in front of such a huge audience in their dialect was a challenge she excelled at. Many actors in the film are also drama artistes, so singing came naturally to them.
The death of the young girl in the film was sudden but had worked on an emotional level, yes. However, as a filmmaker, what did you strive to explain through the sequence?
It was done to explore the unpredictability of our existence. We speak to someone in the morning, only to receive a call they had met with an accident on the same day. That’s what happens in life – death is always sudden and it’s only in the rarest of cases that people know when they would die. I didn’t want to show how the child dies in the film. I was more interested in presenting what happens after the incident. There is a change in the protagonist after death. Sethum Aayiram Pon is about what happens after death, the song that is sung, the drama that follows later.
Do you think the life of the granddaughter would change after the death of her grandma?
I am not sure. What we can say with certainty is that the grandmother is a very practical lady. Even when the granddaughter asks her to come to Chennai and stay with her, the grandma expresses her interest to stay back in the village. The grandma too allowed the granddaughter to return to the city and didn’t stop her either. She keeps reiterating a quote about how a relationship works better with a sense of detachment. The more we stay at home and live with the same person, some problems are bound to arise. While we may be close with a person, if they become a part of our life and we wake up to them daily, the relationship loses its magic. It’s rare that we go to our mothers and say that ‘I am happy staying with you’. The grandma’s sudden spurt of love for her granddaughter in Sethum Aayiram Pon also stems from the fact that they have been away for 15 years. After the grandma’s death, Meera would have probably returned to Chennai again and came back to the village occasionally. She now has new friends in the village – her aunt, Amudha, Kuberan and his pals.
Did you purposefully leave the relationship between the granddaughter and Kuberan open-ended?
Yes, I thought it was the most practical way to go about it. She is much educated and learned in comparison to him. I wanted the audiences to interpret if they have anything for each other and didn’t even label it as love. I hinted at a spark of love that has just started and that there was something in common between them. That’s about it.
Ironically, this is a phase where the communities you discussed in the film are left with no livelihood because of social distancing!
We are all experiencing the fear of death now and are being cautious, refraining from doing certain things. Once that fear gets removed, humanity will be the first thing born out of this crisis. We will go out of the way to help people. I would say I am very happy to have released the film at this hour. It worked for business reasons but at this hour, but it’s good that my film is suggesting people remove the fear of dying and rather live in the present happily.
Take us through the journey of the film’s entry into an OTT platform…
This film commenced its shoot in June 2018. The scenario was different then and we were extremely optimistic about the opportunities that OTT platforms would present us. However, there also began the trend of the streaming platforms buying all those big films that have had wide theatrical releases. There are only a handful of web originals that Netflix has invested in, before Sethum Aayiram Pon. We were sceptical about its release – we either needed a strong familiar cast or a big production house to back our script. We had neither. Luckily, Netflix picked up a regional original after a long time. And the time of the release is so coincidental – we didn’t plan it that way, but we got a great audience for the film during the lockdown.
The fact that an indie-spirited film like Sillu Karupatti could get such a wide reception after being backed by Suriya’s 2D Entertainments should have filled many independent filmmakers like you with hope...
Kaakka Muttai was the first of its kind independent film to have a mainstream release because it was backed by a Dhanush. Sillukarapatti had a good release, thanks to 2D Entertainment and the interest of Suriya to give it a good push. Care of Kancharapalem, another independent film, received a major boost because of Rana Daggubati’s association. There are lots of regional stories waiting to be told but I wish there’s a standardised streaming platform that could bring it all under one roof. Now, when we make a film, we’re not sure if any platform would pick it up or if it would fall under someone’s eyes. Unless that happens, a lot of films like Sethum Aayiram Pon may not even see the light of the day. The process is so random. I may have just gotten lucky this time.
What do you think is the road ahead then?
Only if streaming platforms annually commit to a certain number of regional originals they would want to invest in, I could see some hope at the end of the tunnel. That’s the reason OTT platforms came into being – to support independent content. Big films already have released in thousands of theatres and still occupy a lion’s share of a streaming platform library. I see no point in it. Streaming platforms run ads for films like Darbar and Mafia on television while independent content hardly gets any attention. However, I see this lockdown as a leveller and it will trigger a behavioural change among audiences and producers and the way they look at independent films.